Sometimes we recognize old songs without realizing they were originally songs from a musical before they became radio hits. I love songs by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics), and 42nd Street is a musical that spawned a number of Warren and Dubin radio hits (who also had cameo roles in the movie version of the musical).
In a nutshell, 42nd Street is about small-town Pennsylvania Peggy Sawyer (played by Ruby Keeler in the movie) who hits out by moving to New York City in the hopes that she’ll make her mark in Broadway.
Peggy Sawyer finds herself as a member of the chorus much to the dismay of Broadway diva Dorothy Brock (played by Bebe Daniels in the movie) who is romantically involved with the financial backer of the production, the very wealthy Abner Dillon (played by Guy Kibbee in the movie) who, unlike the director Julian Marsh (played by Warner Baxter in the movie), didn’t lose all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. But behind Abner’s back, Dorothy is seeing her Pat Denning (played by George Brent in the movie) and thus the stage is set (pardon the pun).
The 42nd Street Special was a train that left Los Angeles on 20 February 1933, headed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration on 4 March 1933 – the day after the movie version of the musical premiered in New York. On board the train were stars such as Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Loretta Young, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. It was an amazing way to draw attention to the film and captured the attention of the country in the middle of a bleak period in American history.
The train trip extravaganza began as an idea courtesy of Warner Brothers studios publicity chief, Charlie Einfeld. The Depression had seen the number of moviegoers drop by more than fifty percent in the three years since the Crash, and Warner Brothers studios was dealing with huge losses to the tune of $14 MILLION USD. This publicity stunt was going to set the studio back another $400,000 USD.
During the election campaign, the Warner brothers had backed Franklin Delano Roosevelt while MGM studios’ Louis B. Mayer had backed Herbert Hoover. The spectacle was promoted in the media as “the greatest train ride since Paul Revere.”
General Electric, seeing an opportunity to get in on the publicity, co-sponsored and fully equipped the six-coach express train with outdoor lights, speakers, and an all-electric kitchen with what was then considered to be a state-of-the-art electric oven, refrigerator, and dishwasher. At every stop (which totaled 30 in the space of 17 days), the public was invited to tour the kitchen car and see for themselves what these amazing appliances looked like.
With so many wonderful songs to choose from to include in this entry, I’ve gone with these for this article. “Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet” sung by Ruby Keeler is mesmerizing.
“You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me” sung by Bebe Daniels is fun and cheeky.
“I’m Young And Healthy” sung by a very young Dick Powell (who in later years was known for his role as Nick Charles in the Thin Man movie series).
The song that first introduced me to 42nd Street was one I heard courtesy of the Bugs Bunny cartoons. As a child, I had no idea where Buffalo was exactly, but the song was something I recognized and sang along to before I was old enough to attend kindergarten. “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” was the kind of song that resonated with children as much as it did with adults. The scene with this song in the movie version of 42nd Street makes the song even more fun than the Bugs Bunny segment (which was absolutely memorable and completely amusing).
The golden age of musicals may have been decades ago but the songs from that era still stand up to inspection in this generation, don’t you agree?